Heiress of Nothing
16-year-old Jay is struggling to find her place in a world that doesn't want her. After losing the mother she'd longed to return to, she finds stability with a grumpy demanding mentor. When he gets kidnapped, she has to team up with a group of thieves to go against a technologically overwhelming foe, all the while dodging an anonymous assassin who wants to take her out, to guarantee her half-brothers right to succession.
Tomorrow we celebrate the five-year anniversary of the truce. A happy occasion for old and young, and me, but for a very different reason.
Five years ago, the fighting between Ahebban and Fenix stopped. Five years ago I, Fenix regent's only child, had been given up as a hostage to Ahebban.
Tomorrow, there will be a large banquette, amazing fireworks, songs, and drinks, but I couldn't care less about that. One more day, and my time as hostage was up. I could finally go home and see my mother again.
"Oi, carrot-top" said Doreen and I flinched as she slapped the back of my head. "Watch what you're doing, idiot. The acid goes in last, or you'll blow us all up."
I hated the senior chemist apprentice. Give me a break, there was no way she could tell what I was about to do just from how I held the conical flasks. "Fireworks come early?" I asked, smiling, and winking at her after making sure the head chemist was nowhere close by. Riling Doreen up was fun, she looked like a pufferfish having a stroke.
I put the flasks down and wiped my sweaty hands on my green apron. We should have gloves, especially for the dangerous work, but the Roamers were late on delivery. Doreen had generously volunteered me for the acid work, prick that she was.
Doreen, who as a good head taller than me, looked down, watery blue eyes contracting over a long and pointy nose, and sneered. I watched her leave, not particularly bothered. Maybe there would be ramifications, she was not good at taking a joke, but after tomorrow, she wouldn't matter anymore. I carefully added the fuming hydrochloric acid to the water, the stench drove tears into my eyes by the time I screwed the lid back in place. The headache followed suit; I hate acid work.
I rinsed the flask with water and tried not to flinch when the cold liquid splashed over the acid burns on my fingers. Showing weakness was a mistake, especially for someone of my fragile societal standing. Clearly, as a hostage I had some value, but given that I was an outsider, it wasn't much. The first lessen naïve little 11-year-old me learnt after arriving in Ahebban was to never, ever show any weakness. Teenagers were cruel, and they pounced on every opportunity to band together against someone else.
I wiped down my bench, it sparkled. Master Philipps was such a stickler for cleanliness, and I did not want to get on his bad side. I hadn't slept well for the last few nights, tossing and turning and when sleep finally came it was disturbed by frequent nightmares. The last thing I wanted was give him an excuse to keep me behind.
As always at the end of the workday, we apprentices lined up for the final assessment. I took stood next to Doreen, ready to call it a day. My hands, ever looking for something to fiddle with, found the bronze bear shaped emblem pinned to my linen shirt. The brown bear stood on his hindlimbs, holding a small flask, and it referred to my status as apprentice chemist. Everyone in Ahebban wore one, it proofed affiliation to the tribe, but also your profession. Tomorrow, I will rip it off and never look at it again. Oh, what I will do to the emblem that symbolized Ahebban's power over me. I giggled. Doreen stared at me with perfectly manicured eyebrows raised, and I aimed my broadest happiest smile at her. Not that many chances left to annoy the crap out of her.
Master Philipps, the stern humorless head chemist was ready to grade each student's performance. "Apprentice Doreen," he said, beady green eyes studying his clipboard before he looked at the stuck-up queen of the pharmacy. "You did well today, off with you to join the celebrations."
Doreen smiled at him, always reveling in his praise. She bowed deeply, hands folded in front of her chest, proudly declaring "Thank you Master Philipps." All eyes were on her, and the situation was too inviting to ignore. I moved my leg back, and pushed into her left thigh with my knee. Already off center, Doreen did not manage to regain balance and crashed face first into the stern pharmacist.
I clenched my jaw shut to stop laughing and stared straight ahead, not moving a muscle.
Doreen entangled herself from Master Philipps. "She kicked me," she screeched at the top of her lungs and directed a death glare at me. It is hard to look innocent on cue, and I did not pulled it off. Regardless, there was no evidence. Ah, the sweetness of small victories.
Master Philipps focused his eyes on me and Doreen smirked darkly. Oh no.
I hate the idea of others thinking I'm stupid, and I'd rather be ignored than my failures made public. Standing here in line, waiting for the inevitable my stomach was in knots. I wish I could speed this up and get it over with, but now at least it was my turn.
"Apprentice Jay," said Master Philipps, "Barely passable."
Barely passable was still okay.
"There is no enjoying the misfortune of others," continued Master Philipps, and Doreen's jubilant expression behind him begged to differ. "Reflect over that for an hour or two washing the glassware."
What could I do but obey silently. It was hard though, with the other apprentices snickering.
"Gotcha," mouthed Doreen.
One more day, I reminded myself. Then I'd be out of here.
Washing the glassware wasn't too bad, at least if I ignored their previous potentially toxic content. It was easy work, and I enjoyed the quiet pharmacy at the end of the day, there was something tranquil about the absence of people. The whirring of machines never turned off had once been eerie, but I was used to them now, and they provided a soothing background. Only few places in Ahebban were powered with electricity, the infirmary for example, but the pharmacy was not essential enough. Master Philipps had extinguished most of the wall mounted torches on his way out, and my eyelids were dropping in the semi-darkness. I yawned, stretched, and grabbed the last flask.
"Hello," said my friend Jack.
I jumped, dropped the beaker, and watched it shatter into a million pieces. I glanced around, eyes wide looking for any witness. Ahebban did not produce its own glassware, they relied on the Roamers to bring it in, and breaking a piece resulted in punishment that I was not keen on receiving. "Shit, Jack," I said, cursing his ability to sneak up on me. I exhaled deeply and rolled my shoulders to relieve the tension that had immediately built up.
Jack had the decency to look guilty, but the playful smile negated the effect. "Sorry," he said and crouched down to help with the cleanup. My hands trembling from the surprise visit, but I managed to pick the shards up without causing any damage . "I saw the apprentices enter the great hall and you weren't with them, I wanted to make sure you were alright."
"I don't need you looking after me." I swiped the remaining glass into the dark corner under the sink where I knew from experience they would never be found. It was a sweet gesture, and I appreciated it, but sometimes Jack forgot that I was no longer the 11 year old he first met.
Jack was a Roamer, and he was just as much an outsider here than I was. He was Ahebban's liaison Roamer, a logistics person who coordinated the trade routes and made sure Ahebban got everything it needed, for a hefty price. If anyone dared raise a hand against him, they faced the wrath of the Roamers, potentially causing lethal issues, such as failure of the electricity lines.
I, on the other hand, was an easy victim if they refrained from killing me. Years ago, after the first physical altercation between me and Doreen, I had written home to inform my parents. For a while, Doreen had backed off, fearing potential retaliation. But nothing happened, no letter, no reprimand, no we-have-your-back of any sort, and since then I'd been fair game. The little scar behind my ear was testament to that. Shortly after that event, Doreen had thrown a glass at me during lunch, and somehow the whole thing ended with me getting punished for destroyed property.
The problem with Jack and his self-proclaimed protectiveness was that the Roamers were neutral to a fault. By their laws, he was forbidden from favoring one warring party over another, and that included such micro-events as me and Doreen having a go at each other. He always arrived to clean up the aftermath though. The infirmary staff must think we were joined at the hip, as often as we showed up there together.
After finishing my extra work, Jack and I extinguished the torches and left.
The main building of Ahebban, where I've lived for the last five years was located in the remnants of an old shopping mall – built a hundred years back, before the mass extinction of humankind had changed the way we lived. Far removed from the technological power-hub Whitewater, we lived in our comparably primitive surroundings, within land reclaimed by nature. I didn't know much about life in Whitewater, but what I'd heard didn't sound like fun.
The pharmacy and attached infirmary were located on the ground floor, in a side tunnel that originally served as a connection to the wide, and now collapsed old underground transport system. It was out of the way and guaranteed the patients a limited degree of privacy. Plus, anyone screaming in pain would not disturb the masses much.
We followed the tunnel, went up seven concrete steps that connected it to a wider and better ventilated corridor. Preparations for tomorrow's celebrations were well underway. Lanterns in all rainbow colours decorated the walls, basking the corridor in a soft glow. The cleaning crews in their grey overalls softly sang Ahebban's hymn while sweeping the cold concrete floors and cleaning the windows. A strategically placed broom handle tried to trip me up, but I saw in time and hopped over it. Nothing would kill my good spirits, not when freedom was so close.
Arriving at the entrance to the great hall, I leant against the wall, ran my hand through my hair and closed my eyes. More singing and laughter drifted over to us through the closed door. "I think I'm going to bed," I said to Jack. I didn't feel like dealing with people, I barely every did. Especially not know. I know they celebrated peace and stability, but in my heart, they celebrated a young girl ripped from a loving mother—let's not think about my father.
"You okay?" asked Jack.
I lied and nodded. My throat was clogging up and speaking would give away how close I was to tears. Five years of constant stress were coming to a close, and my body was ready to shut down and be done with it. I smiled at him, feeling the bone-crushing tiredness that had been creeping up on me all day long. The anticipation of tomorrow was killing me, I could not wait for Captain Adam to arrive and take me home.
Jack, always the gentleman, walked me to my room. The apprentices slept in dormitories, but because early on someone had believed that Fenix would be upset if I were treated badly, they had given me my own little room. I don't know what it had been used for in the old times, but faint outlines of the letters "B" and "e" were visible above the door, with something that could be a necklace right after. I like to imagine that I was sleeping in a jewelry store.
I said goodnight to Jack, entered my room and used one of the sulfuric matches to light the torch on the wall. Its flickering light illuminated a folded white piece of paper on the ground. I picked it up and my fingers trembled, stomach tightening painfully. I never received a letter, not once.
I sat down on the floor, leaning against the bedframe and drew my legs to my chest. No name and no address on the paper, someone had slipped it under my door. I unfolded it, a feeling of dread washing over me, and I shivered, even though it was a warm summer evening.
I opened the paper, tried to steel myself for the worst and skimmed the content of the letter. The last words would forever be burned into my mind. "Your mother is dead."
A/N: I appreciate all feedback, to improve the quality of my writing and the story. Please let me know what you think!